All Commentary
Sunday, June 30, 1996

Restoring Parental Responsibility for Education

Separation of School and State Would Re-Establish Parents' Rights and Responsibilities

I would like all children to enjoy the benefits of schools chosen by their parents. If we learn a lesson from our own history it could be possible in very short time. In America we don’t use the government to run the churches, and considering our diversity, we have admirable religious harmony. I am a religious man, but I think this “hands off” policy is America’s greatest gift to the human race. Now, in the mid-1990s, I believe the miserable condition of our “public” schools has us poised to consider another great gift to ourselves and the entire human race: the separation of school and state. To show why separation is necessary, I’d like to tease some insights from the origin, meaning, or misuse of several words.

Marva Collins, founder of Westside Preparatory School in Chicago, has gained international fame as an educator for what she has done with public-school castoffs. I’ve seen her in action, and she gives them what she has plenty of, courage. She “encourages” them to do their best, and they do. In English the en prefix can mean to provide, transfer, or somehow evoke or instill. Marva likes to say, “If it ain’t caught, it wasn’t taught.” In other words, if the children aren’t “getting it,” the person in front of the class is a talker, not a teacher. Some talkers admit the distinction by saying they “covered the subject” as opposed to “taught a lesson.” Professor Howard Hendricks of Dallas Theological Seminary says that distinction is easy to grasp in Hebrew because that language has no distinct word “to teach.” Instead, a form of the word “learn” is used to mean “to produce learning.” We could translate it more correctly if we had the word “enlearning.” Indeed, we could avoid some mistakes in education if we replaced the word teaching with enlearning. Because we “teach what we are,” a person who tries to enlearn values he does not hold is simply enlearning hypocrisy.

Flattery Through Imitation

People have long pondered why parent-funded private schools seem to work fairly well for their constituencies and tax-funded public schools seem to be going downhill at an increasing speed. In fact, public-school educators are scrambling to imitate the non-essential features of private schools. Some call for uniforms, some want “values” programs, all clamor for fewer layers of administration in their hopes to reverse their downward plunge. The stampede has gone so far that even union leaders are calling for “public schools . . . to emulate some of the desirable features of private schools: small size of schools . . . ; more choice and market dynamics; . . . the right to set and enforce high standards of conduct.” (Adam Urbanski, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, Education Week, January 31, 1996, p. 31) While Urbanski tiptoes with, “It will take a lot to make public schools more effective for all students,” Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, deserves outright praise for his bold statement in the New York Times, “The schools will have to change. Otherwise public education will continue its present course to destruction.” (October 15, 1995)

Meaningless Names, Public and Private

One linguistic barrier to understanding our education woes comes from the very names we give to our schools in America, “public” and “private.” The truth is, most private schools are far more open to the public than are district-bound public schools. “Public” schools always ask about your residence and, in some cities, your race. If you live on the other side of some imaginary line, you are outside their “catchment area” and are typically refused entrance. Further, school districts that are trying to achieve racial balance may deny your children access to a “public” school for racial reasons. Lowell School in San Francisco, for instance, is a magnet high school that the district leaders have decided has “too many Chinese.” Thus some Chinese are turned away to make room for non-Chinese. “Private” schools, on the other hand, typically accept children from anywhere in or out of town. If they do have a racial preference/discrimination policy, they keep it hidden because they know it is wrong.

David Kirkpatrick, former state president of the Pennsylvania affiliate of the National Education Association, makes an interesting observation: the most expensive “public” schools in America hire reverse truant officers. That is, they ferret out children from inferior districts who pretend to live in better districts so they can attend those schools. The reverse truant officers follow children home and even stake out train stations to apprehend the desperate infiltrators. Compare that to the most expensive “private” schools in America. They have active scholarship programs and recruit motivated children from the inner city.

The Missing Link: Responsibility

What if, from the beginning of the government-school era in the 1830s and 1840s, we had referred to the two types of schools as “tax-funded schools” and “parent-or-charity-funded schools” (hereinafter shortened to “parent-funded”)? One thing for sure: as “tax-funded schools” became the mess they are today, we would dismiss anyone who said he had a wonderful way to extend tax-funding to parent-funded schools. We’d see right through clever names such as “charter” and “voucher” and wonder why authors of such plans would risk the ruination of parent-funded schools by sneaking tax-funding into them. We’d instinctively defend the integrity of parent-funded schools because the very name would help us to think straight.

In their call for “market dynamics,” union leaders miss the real secret of success of parent-funded schools: parental responsibility. Conservatives who tout “choice” make the same mistake, says former school board member Jack Simons of Sheffield, Vermont. Simons uses food stamps to illustrate the hollowness of mere “choice” without responsibility: “Some Subway Sandwich shops now accept USDA food vouchers for cold sandwiches not to be eaten inside. If choice is so all-fired important,” asks Simons, “why not man the ramparts demanding that the poor be given the ‘choice’ to use their food stamps to buy hot food and even eat it inside?”

The late Max Victor Belz, a grain dealer in Grundy County, Iowa, helps us reorient from choice to responsibility in his pithy comment, “I don’t want my children fed or clothed by the state; but if I had to choose, I would prefer that to their being educated by the state.” “Responsibility” is the key difference between tax-funded and parent-funded schools. Parent-funded schools have a high percentage of parents who are fully exercising their parental rights in education, and tax-funded schools have few such parents. I know this is a harsh indictment, and it is aimed at myself as well as millions of others.

Parents who sacrifice to put their children into a parent-funded school remain fully potent. They are capable of exercising their parental rights–they can move their child from one school to another with little or no financial pain. On the other hand, parents at tax-funded schools are almost impotent because they are unaccustomed to being financially responsible for their children’s education. They will incur a huge financial burden to remove their children from a tax-funded school, either in the form of tuition or the expense and inconvenience of moving to a different district.

Parent-Funded Schools and Sacrifice

Like investors and entrepreneurs, those who “sacrifice” defer gratification. The original meaning, to make holy by offering to a deity, grew into a parallel secular meaning, “to give up something you value now for something that you value more later.” For instance, in baseball, intentionally flying out in order to score or advance a base runner is called a “sacrifice fly” because, before 1894, it counted against the batter’s average. The batter sacrificed something he valued, his batting average, for something that he valued more–an improved chance for his team to win the game.

In that sense, parents who directly provide for their children’s education sacrifice. That act both reflects and influences their attitude about their children’s education. In contrast, paying taxes, just like forking over your wallet to a mugger, is neither investment nor sacrifice. One is not deferring gratification, but merely avoiding pain. Coercion is central to the financing of tax-funded schools, whereas deferred gratification, usually based on hope and love, is the financing source of parent-funded schools.

The call by some conservatives for “parental rights” without a companion call for “parental financial responsibility” is the same “gimme attitude” that drives the liberals’ call for “welfare rights.” Let’s recall columnist Joseph Sobran’s insight: “‘Need’ now means wanting someone else’s money. ‘Greed’ means wanting to keep your own. ‘Compassion’ is when a politician arranges the transfer.”

Now a fatal flaw in American tax-funded schools becomes evident. Most of us were sold a lie. We were snookered. We bought into a bogus right. Starting in the 1830s, Americans were talked into believing that children have the right to an education at their neighbors’ expense through the force of taxation.

Why is this a lie? Let’s go back to the “en” prefix. Marva Collins has courage, so she can encourage children. On the other hand, a depressed person has little life, so he can’t enliven a party. A person without title to his neighbor’s property cannot “entitle” himself to it. Remember Frederic Bastiat’s insight that if it is wrong for a citizen to steal directly from another, it is equally wrong to steal indirectly by using government as a middleman.

The Only Cure for Irresponsibility

It is apparent why we have such an epidemic of parental irresponsibility: government has become the great enabler of irresponsibility and dependence. How to begin to cure it? The only way to teach responsibility is to (a) demonstrate it yourself, plus (b) require others to pay the price of irresponsibility. One of my co-workers, Sharon Karraker, described our society’s alternatives precisely: the fear of what might happen as we return to parental responsibility is nothing compared to the knowledge of the mess we’ll be in if we stay on our current course.

Simply put, parent-funded schools have love as part of their culture; it starts with their financing. Tax-funded schools have coercion as part of their culture; it also starts with their financing. In education, like so much of life, love works. Coercion doesn’t. Without love, all the rest is pretty much folderol.

We Americans can be proud that our forbears had the wisdom and courage to end government-compelled church funding, attendance, and practice. Similarly, government must be prevented from compelling school funding, attendance, and curriculum. Only with the separation of school and state can we re-establish parental responsibility, protect parents’ rights, and enable schools, teachers, and students to flourish in an environment of educational freedom.